Hamlet in His Modern Guises

By Alexander Welsh | Go to book overview

Preface and Acknowledgments

HAMLET BECAME a modern hero, I contend, as soon as Shakespeare put his hands on him four hundred years ago. At least, the only other Hamlets who have come down to us are distinctly medieval, even ancient, if folk and classical analogues are taken into account. The leading difference between Hamlet and the earlier narrated adventures of the same hero is the introduction of a close-knit family. Indeed Shakespeare underlined the difference by creating two families, the second fashioned around the nameless friend of the hero's stepfather who would come to be called Polonius. With two families in hand, the playwright constructed his superb model of filial relationships, the resonance of which is attested by the fame of his play. By the later eighteenth century Hamlet became a stronger cultural force than in the days of its first performances, and its influence thereafter increased. To stay in the forefront of this growth industry, Hamlet had to be modern.

In a laboratory for the study of filial relations, if there were no troublesome rules about the use of human subjects, one would presumably kill off a few fathers and watch what happened. Fortunately, we have various verbal and miming techniques called plays, in which lethal injections (say into the ear) can be performed quite harmlessly and the reactions of sons directly imagined. Of course Shakespeare did not set out to study any human behavior in the abstract, but unquestionably the death of Hamlet's father puts the young man and their relationship, and the relationship with the mother and the girlfriend, to the test. About twenty years ago, after conducting an undergraduate seminar on Hamlet and during a painful time in my own life, I wrote an essay on Hamlet's task in mourning the loss of his father. The essay endorsed, in passing, the notion that Shakespeare adapted the story with the knowledge of his own father's death, or impending death, in 1601. I still find myself pondering what the play meant to its author. Shakespeare did not have to behave like Hamlet or even especially to feel like Hamlet in order to put his experience, and that of so many other sons and fathers, to good use in the theater. He did what he could do sympathetically for Hamlet. He needed no laboratory for his experiment. But the resulting play, in its accommodating texture, has provided ample work room for later writers great and small.

The present book is far from a survey of later writers' uses of Hamlet. For one thing, I do not even touch on the vast stage history of the play. I do discuss a group of sixteenth-century revenge tragedies in support of the

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